Numbers 1-4:20

May 11, 2013 – 2 Sivan 5773


The Torah is owned by no one


This week we read Parashat Bemidvar, literally, “in the wilderness”.  We begin as well with the reading of the fourth book of the Torah, named in Hebrew with the same name of our parashah, although in Spanish it is known as “Numbers”.  Furthermore, it is worthwhile to mention that this parashah is usually read on the Shabbat prior to Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah, as it occurs this year.

It is interesting to stop for a minute and reflect on what it means that the Torah was given precisely in the wilderness.  After all, it is surprising that God chose such a barren and inhospitable place for such a major event.  Why was the Torah given in the wilderness?

The Midrash offers several answers to this question.  In the first place, the desert has no owners (or at least it didn’t have at the time when the Torah was given!).  Therefore, the Torah is everybody’s and nobody’s patrimony at the same time, since no one can claim its proprietorship, due to its having been given is such a peculiar place.

The sages of the Midrash use this principle to clamor for the universal character of the Torah; to declare it a world heritage, so to speak.  But at the same time, it serves them to explain that if the Torah had been delivered in the land of Israel, it would have been necessarily given at the territory of one of the tribes.  And given that the Torah was delivered outside the heredity of the children of Israel, we learn that no tribe can claim the exclusive ownership of the Torah, but rather that the Torah belongs equally to all tribes.

Finally, by having been given at a place with no owner, no one has an easier access to the Torah than any other.  Anyone and everyone could reach out for it, with no privileges or special rights.

Please note: our most sacred book, around which our entire tradition and identity develop, was given at a place with no owners, accessible to all.  From the very start of the relationship between the people of Israel and the Torah, the democratization of the access to the Torah is clearly underlined.  There are no owners or “VIP boxes” to gain access to the Torah: we are all in equal conditions.

This principle found an echo in the Jewish organization revolving around the study of Torah.  As of hundreds of years ago, the highest honor and prestige to which a person could aspire, within the traditional Jewish society, was the one resulting from learning Torah.  To gain access to the Torah, the only thing you need is intelligence, time, and study persistence.

In this manner, social climbing and the reaching of prestigious positions depend on personal effort, and never on an inheritance, influences, belonging to a specific social class, or riches.

This important and central characteristic regarding access to the Torah, brings with it an essential principle that we should never forget: we all stand equal before the Torah and before God.  In other words, this means that there are no first class or second class Jews.  We may all approach the Torah and drink of its fountains of wisdom, with no distinction whatsoever.

The Torah belongs to no one, it is open for everyone:  rich and poor; religious and secular; orthodox, conservative and reform; those who live in Israel and those who live in the Diaspora; etc.  No privileges exist for one or the others, just as there are no barriers for these or for those.

Those who currently believe themselves to be the owners of the truth among the Jewish people, those who consider themselves the only ones who know the way to reach the Torah, all of them should remember that the Torah was given in the wilderness, for the purpose of teaching us that no one has the key to the Torah, but rather that it is open to all those who want to get to know her.

Those who currently feel diminished or threatened, because they perceive that a part of the Jewish people hinder their way to understand and feel Judaism, perhaps should forget those groups of power and begin to stand up for themselves, without losing time on trying to win the recognition of others, when we know that the only recognition worth having is the one offered by the knowledge of the Torah.

In these current times, where Judaism lives between the pole of a group that claims to be the only privileged group with access to the Torah, and another pole who suffers because the former do not understand them and ostracize them instead, we should start walking through paths that overcome this dichotomy, through the open paths that lead to the heart of Torah and which are hard to make out, troubled by the hubbub of futile discussions.

In this Shabbat Bemidvar, when we once more prepare to receive the Torah during the festival of Shavuot, let us bear in mind that the Torah is for all Jews, without ownership or privileges.  Those who believe themselves owners of the truth, have surely forgotten where the Torah was given… and it would be good to remind them!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabino Rami Pavolotzky

Congregación B´nei Israel, Costa Rica